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Empowerment and Disintegration as Central Themes

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Last Updated on May 17, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1961

The literature of Colonialism is often unpleasant, or at least challenging, to read. Even after most European countries had abandoned the practice of slavery, which eventually was deemed barbaric by public opinion, the taking of territory and the imposition of new governments were considered jewels in the crown of the second British Empire. Yet the era of “New Imperialism” was short-lived. In practical terms it ended with the start of World War I, but the imperial age also waned as public support for colonization declined. As the literature of Colonialism demonstrates, ambiguity and paradox characterize colonial discourse. What forces underlie that paradox?

It is perhaps no accident that the increasing momentum in imperialist history is echoed in the rapid developments in the history of psychology and psychiatry during the nineteenth century. Though no historian has proven a connection, it is not much of a stretch to imagine that increased encounters with other peoples would give rise to questions about the nature of humanity. The discipline of anthropology emerged from these questions— the Royal Anthropological Institute was founded in 1871—but the existing sciences of mankind also grew. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, scholars including Alexander Bain, Franz Brentano, William James, and John Dewey began defining their discipline, seeking to describe in scientific terms the relationship between emotion and the will, states of consciousness and unconsciousness, and human mental development. In the field of psychiatry, Freud began developing his theories of the unconscious, where humans are ruled by animal instincts that must be tempered by reason or punishment. Concurrently, Darwin began publishing his series of works on evolution and natural selection. Indeed, to some extent the notion of the “survival of the fittest” grew out of the travels of his friend Alfred Wallace through Malaysia. Darwin too wrote about the emotions in scientific terms, publishing The Expression of Emotion in 1872. In that work he discussed the communication of animals and how their various signals reveal the foundations of the human expression of emotion.

Such discoveries were cause for optimism. As the Industrial Revolution surged forward, it seemed that science and technology held the keys to ever greater wealth and progress. Outmoded superstitions and needless self-repression could be cast aside. The dawn of a new century and the death of Queen Victoria contributed to the sense of a bold new era dominated by the power of man. At the same time, however, the new science of human nature seemed to create as many questions as it purported to answer. Not surprisingly, the notion of agnosticism, or the belief that ultimate reality, or God, is unknown and unknowable, sprang from the followers of Darwin. The scientific search for man’s origin led only to a clouded mystery, far more ambiguous than traditional notions of humankind’s place in the universe. Thought and emotion, even action, appeared to be ruled by forces even more remote than a heavenly deity—at best, the nervous system, at worst, the murky recesses of the unconscious.

An obvious literary response to and reflection of this paradox is Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, long celebrated as a mirror for the fragmented modern man. But Conrad’s antiheroes are not the only characters of colonialist literature who experience that joint pull toward both power and disintegration. Arguably, that contradictory movement is an essential part of much of the literature of Colonialism. Haggard’s She and Kipling’s Kim, not examples of Conrad’s Modernism, nonetheless similarly reveal aspects of the paradoxical modern self. As in Heart of Darkness , in these novels contact or confrontation of man’s animal nature, represented by untamed...

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wilderness or untamed “primitives,” draws the protagonist in conflicting directions.

In She both Leo Vincy and the narrator Holly find themselves tempted by the goddess Ayesha even as they loathe her and her highly sensual and barbaric brand of paganism. After receiving a chilling tour of her tombs, Holly readily succumbs to her temptations anyway, though she tells Leo frankly that a kiss from her would undo him forever. Yet somehow Holly senses something that he says “chilled me back to common sense, and a knowledge of propriety and the domestic virtues.” In the unconscious of Holly, instinct and civilization struggle mightily. Likewise, Leo confronts Ayesha but staggers back, “as if all the manhood had been taken out of him.” When Ayesha successfully seduces Leo after killing his wife before his eyes, Holly reports:

Leo groaned in shame and misery for though he was overcome and stricken down, he was not so lost as to be unaware of the depth of the degradation to which he had sunk. On the contrary, his better nature rose up in arms against his fallen self, as I saw clearly later on.

In Holly’s terms, Leo’s struggle is a struggle of those two aspects of his nature: the power of the will and the devolutionary force of instinct and desire. This struggle looks quite different in Kim, a novel with a very different tone and audience. Nonetheless, as both a spy novel and a coming-ofage story, Kim touches on issues of identity and development. In the closing chapter, Kim’s final battle is between the Body and the Soul. In this case, the Body is tied to reason and reality, solid things that are known to exist and be useful. The Soul, particularly as it is described by the lama, is mystical and irrational. Yet it is never made clear how the battle ends. Shortly before the novel ends, Kim cries out, “I am Kim. I am Kim. And what is Kim?” Though the overall ethos of the novel appears to privilege Western empiricist knowledge over Eastern mysticism, the answer to Kim’s question remains ambiguous.

Though Kim, She, and Heart of Darkness are written from a strongly masculine perspective, the paradox of human nature is not a question limited to men. The combination of Colonialism and rising early feminism was a potent mixture for women seeking to understand their place in the world. Women did not have the same claim to the sense of power and entitlement with which white male Europeans rang in the twentieth century, yet the symbol of empire was a woman—Victoria—and individual women played major roles in the project of colonization. The writing of many women who ventured into the colonies does not display a fear of losing one’s self but a sense of finding one’s self. This is perhaps a reductive dichotomy— women move between oppression and integration, while men move between power and disintegration— but if we keep its limitations in mind it can help highlight some interesting aspects of colonialist texts by women. Adjacent to this difference in women’s writing is the role the narrator/heroine of women’s texts plays. While the men’s texts discussed above depict men as dominant heroes (or antiheroes), the heroines of works such as Mansfield’s New Zealand stories or even the autobiographical Out of Africa stand to the side of such figures. The narrator of “The Woman at the Store” is led by a party of men, and the external action and conflicts of the story take place between the men and the shopkeeper, as the unnamed female narrator stands by. Even in Out of Africa, where Dinesen is the subject of her own story, the hero is “played” by Denys Finch Hatton. These women write themselves into the history of Colonialism, yet the force of patriarchy does not allow them to imagine themselves as real subjects.

Such texts thus reflect the workings of colonial discourse. As Mills writes in Discourses of Difference, “Females play an important part in the colonial enterprise as signifiers, but not as producers of signification.” In other words, women are not actors or subjects, but symbols, or objects. This is a difficult position from which to write, and a difficult position from which to imagine a self. The development of psychology, as discussed above, was not a great help. The normative self was naturally male simply because that was the cultural standard of the time, but in some cases the development of the human sciences rendered this cultural practice as a scientific axiom. Freud’s understanding of “the eternal feminine” construed it as part of the dangerous unconscious that needed to be mastered by male will and reason. In her essay on Haggard’s She, Gilbert quotes Freud’s description of the novel, which he says depicts that eternal feminine as “the immorality of our emotions.” Thus as symbols of empire and symbols of irrationality, women were not masters but the embodiment of that which needed to be mastered, doubly so.

Postcolonial critic Gayatri Spivak suggests this in her “Three Women’s Tests and a Critique of Imperialism,” on Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Spivak writes, “Bertha’s function in Jane Eyre is to render indeterminate the boundary between human and animal and thereby to weaken her entitlement under the spirit if not the letter of the Law.” In the context of our discussion, the Law can be understood as analogous to Freud’s “Law of the Father,” the masculine control of the illicit instincts of the unconscious. Bertha, as white Creole and female, demonstrates the need to subordinate the feminine. It is this Law, this sense of being mastered, that Schreiner writes about through the character of Lyndall in The Story of an African Farm. After visiting a Boer wedding, Lyndall reflects on her feelings of restriction and freedom and their relationship to imperialism. Her monologue is worth quoting at length:

I like to feel that strange life beating up against me. I like to realize forms of life utterly unlike mine. . . . When my own life feels small, and I am oppressed with it, I like to crush together, and see it in a picture, in an instant, a multitude of disconnected unlike phases of human life—medieval monk with his string of beads pacing the quiet orchard . . .; little Malay boys playing naked on a shining sea-beach; a Hindoo philosopher alone under his banyan tree, thinking, thinking, thinking, so that in the thought of God he may lose himself . . . . a Kaffir witch-doctor seeking for herbs by moonlight, while from the huts on the hillside come the sound of dogs barking, and the voices of women and children; a mother giving bread and milk to her children in little wooden basins and singing the evening song, I like to see it all; I feel it run through me—that life belongs to me; it makes my little life larger; it breaks down the narrow walls that shut me in.

Schreiner describes in detail the wildness that Haggard and Conrad describe as threatening, that Kipling portrays as tamable, and constructs it as liberating. This liberation is not complete—Lyndall is very much a radical whose dreams are unlikely to be realized, as in Out of Africa Dinesen’s sense of freedom is countered by the force of patriarchy that does not allow her to claim the role of the hero for herself. Moreover, that liberation appears to come at the cost of the continued oppression of the colonized. Africa, after all, did not exist solely for the self-realization of white European women. Nonetheless, perhaps what has made works such as Dinesen’s and Schreiner’s compelling to successive generations of readers is that they can envision that liberation at all. Like Conrad, they do not escape paradox and ambiguity but instead write it out where it can be viewed and acknowledged. In the contemporary climate of neo-Colonialism, where the history of humanity will go from there remains to be seen.

Source: Shaun Strohmer, Critical Essay on Colonialism, in Literary Movements for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

Situating Colonial and Postcolonial Studies: Colonialism and Literature

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Last Updated on May 17, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8055

Objectivity is not the only ground on which claims for ideological and political innocence can be made. Humanist literary studies have long been resistant to the idea that literature (or at least good literature) has anything to do with politics, on the grounds that the former is either too subjective, individual and personal or else too universal and transcendent to be thus tainted. Accordingly, the relationship between Colonialism and literature was not, until recently, dealt with by literary criticism. Today, the situation seems to be rapidly reversing itself, with many, if not a majority, of analysts of colonial discourse coming from a training in, or professional affiliation with, literary studies. This does not mean that the orthodoxies within literary studies have simply evaporated: often analyses of Colonialism, or race, like those of gender, are still regarded as ‘special interest’ topics which do not seriously alter teaching and research in the rest of the discipline. Still, recent attention to the relationship between literature and Colonialism has provoked serious reconsiderations of each of these terms.

Firstly, literature’s pivotal role in both colonial and anti-colonial discourses has begun to be explored. Ever since Plato, it has been acknowledged that literature mediates between the real and the imaginary. Marxist and post-structuralist debates on ideology increasingly try to define the nature of this mediation. If, as we suggested earlier, language and ‘signs’ are the sites where different ideologies intersect and clash with one another, then literary texts, being complex clusters of languages and signs, can be identified as extremely fecund sites for such ideological interactions. Moreover, they also show the complex articulation between a single individual, social contexts and the play of language. Literary texts circulate in society not just because of their intrinsic merit, but because they are part of other institutions such as the market, or the education system. Via these institutions, they play a crucial role in constructing a cultural authority for the colonisers, both in the metropolis and in the colonies. However, literary texts do not simply reflect dominant ideologies, but encode the tensions, complexities and nuances within colonial cultures. Literature is an important ‘contact zone’, to use Mary Louise Pratt’s term, where ‘transculturation’ takes place in all its complexity. Literature written on both sides of the colonial divide often absorbs, appropriates and inscribes aspects of the ‘other’ culture, creating new genres, ideas and identities in the process. Finally, literature is also an important means of appropriating, inverting or challenging dominant means of representation and colonial ideologies. Let us examine some of these interactions between literature and Colonialism.

We have already seen how travellers tales in the European Renaissance were an amalgam of fiction, attitudes received from earlier times, and new observations. Encounters with what lies outside its own boundaries are central to the formation of any culture: the line that separates inside and outside, the ‘self’ and the ‘other’ is not fixed but always shifting. The vast new worlds encountered by European travellers were interpreted by them through ideological filters, or ways of seeing, provided by their own cultures and societies. But the impetus to trade, plunder and conquer these new lands also provided a new and crucial framework through which they would interpret other lands and peoples. Hence, black Africans were considered bestial both because of the medieval and religious associations of blackness with filth and dirt, and also because this provided a justification for colonising and enslaving them. This dialectic shaped attitudes to outsiders as well as to ‘European’ culture itself, for example, the centrality of whiteness to beauty was not an age-old idea that now cast black people as ugly, rather it was the actual contact with black people, based on conquest and exploitation, which also shaped English Renaissance notions of beauty. English nationalism relied upon cultural distinctions which demarcated Europeans from blacks, or even the English from Italians or Irish people; conversely, these cultural distinctions rationalised an aggressive nationalism that fuelled England’s overseas expansion.

It is not just travel tales which are shaped by cross-cultural encounters but even those pieces of writing which appear to be inward looking, or deal with private rather than public concerns. The lovers in John Donne’s poems, for example, explicitly demarcate their private space from the fast expanding outer world. In ‘The Sunne Rising’, even the sun becomes a peeping Tom, a ‘busy olde fool’. Such a retreat both testifies to the growing ideology of coupledom in this period and challenges (via its blatant sexuality and extra-marital connotations) its Protestant version. But the withdrawal into privacy and the celebration of sexuality can only be expressed by images culled from contemporary geographical expansion. The female body is described in terms of the new geography, as in Donne’s ‘Love’s Progress’:

The Nose (like to the first Meridian) runs Not ‘twixt an East and West, but ‘twixt two suns: It leaves a Cheek, a rosie Hemisphere On either side, and then directs us where Upon islands fortunate we fall, Not faynte Canaries, but Ambrosiall, Her swelling lips . . . and the streight Hellespont betweene The Sestos and Abydos of her breasts . . . And Sailing towards her India, in that way Shall at her fair Atlantick Navell stay . . .

The lovers’ relationship is worked out in terms of the colonialists’ interaction with the lands they ‘discover’, as in ‘To his Mistris going to Bed’:

Licence my roaving hands, and let them go, Before, behind, between, above, below. O my America! my new-found-land, My kingdome, safeliest when with one man man’d My Myne of precious stones: My Emperie, How blest am I in this discovering thee.

The colonial contact is not just ‘reflected’ in the language or imagery of literary texts, it is not just a backdrop or ‘context’ against which human dramas are enacted, but a central aspect of what these texts have to say about identity, relationships and culture. Moreover, in the second poem by Donne, sexual and colonial relationships become analogous to each other. Donne’s male lover is the active discoverer of the female body, and desires to explore it in the same way as the European ‘adventurer’ who penetrates and takes possession of lands which are seen as passive, or awaiting discovery. Here, the sexual promise of the woman’s body indicates the wealth promised by the colonies—hence, in the first poem the lover/colonist traverses her body/the globe to reach her ‘India’, the seat of riches. But the woman/land analogy also employs a reverse logic as the riches promised by the colonies signify both the joys of the female body as well as its status as a legitimate object for male possession.

Language and literature are together implicated in constructing the binary of a European self and a non-European other, which, as Said’s Orientalism suggested, is a part of the creation of colonial authority. Peter Hulme’s work on the formation of a colonial discourse in sixteenth-century America is extremely illuminating in this regard. Hulme shows how two words—‘cannibal’ and ‘hurricane’— were lifted from Native American tongues and adopted as new words into all major European languages in order to strengthen an ideological discourse’. Both words came to connote not just the specific natural and social phenomenon they appear to describe but the boundary between Europe and America, civility and wildness. ‘Hurricane’ began to mean not simply a particular kind of a tempest but something peculiar to the Caribbean. Thus, it indicated the violence and savagery of the place itself. Similarly, ‘cannibalism’ is not simply the practice of human beings eating their own kind, not just another synonym for the older term anthropophagy. The latter term referred to savages eating their own kind, but cannibalism indicated the threat that these savages could turn against and devour Europeans. Hulme further shows that there was a blurring of boundaries between these two terms, although hurricane supposedly referred to a natural phenomenon and cannibalism to a cultural practice, they both came to designate whatever lay outside Europe. Moreover, ‘cannibal’ was etymologically connected to the Latin word canis (dog), reinforcing the view that ‘the native cannibals of the West Indies hunted like dogs and treated their victims in the ferocious manner of all predators’. Hulme discusses how a play like Shakespeare’s The Tempest (far from being a romantic fable removed from the real world) is implicated in these discursive developments, and in the formation of colonial discourse in general, how its tempests are hurricanes in this new sense, and why Caliban’s name is an anagram for cannibal, and why also Prospero turns a dog called Fury on to the rebels. Literature, in such a reading, both reflects and creates ways of seeing and modes of articulation that are central to the colonial process.

Literary texts are crucial to the formation of colonial discourses precisely because they work imaginatively and upon people as individuals. But literary texts do not simply reflect dominant ideologies; they also militate against them, or contain elements which cannot be reconciled to them. Such complexity is not necessarily a matter of authorial intention. Plays such as Othello and The Tempest thus evoke contemporary ideas about the bestiality or incivility of non-Europeans. But we can differ about whether they do so in order to endorse dominant attitudes to ‘race’ and culture or to question them. Does Othello serve as a warning against inter- racial love, or an indictment of the society which does not allow it? Does The Tempest endorse Prospero’s view of Caliban as a bestial savage, or does it depict the dehumanisation of colonial rule? It is difficult to establish Shakespeare’s intentions, but we can certainly see how these plays have been read differently by people over time and in different places. The Tempest, for example, has been staged, interpreted and appropriated as a romance that has nothing to do with Colonialism, as an imperial fable depicting the victory of the white man’s Cover of Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness knowledge over both nature and the savage, and as an anti-colonial text that depicts the struggle of the enslaved Caliban.

Literary and cultural practices also embody cultural interactions. Morris dancing, which might be regarded as quintessentially English, evolved from Moorish dances brought back to Europe through the Crusades. In fact, throughout the medieval and early modern periods we can see the European appropriation of non-European texts and traditions, especially Arabic texts, so that European literature is not simply literature written in Europe or by Europeans but is produced in the crucible of a history of interactions going back to antiquity. The syncretic nature of literary texts or their ideological complexities should not lead to the conclusion that they are somehow ‘above’ historical and political processes. Rather, we can see how literary texts, both through what they say, and in the process of their writing, are central to colonial history, and in fact can help us towards a nuanced analysis of that history. Even a discipline like comparative literature which acknowledged the profound interaction of various literatures and cultures, was hierarchically organised, and its central assumption was that ‘Europe and the United States together were the centre of the world, not simply by virtue of their political positions, but also because their literatures were the ones most worth studying’. Instead, Said suggests that Western cultural forms be placed ‘in the dynamic global environment created by imperialism.’

But what about non-Western forms of writing? These too did not develop in isolation but were shaped by foreign, including colonial, encounters. For example, O. Chandu Menon’s Indulekha (1889); one of the earliest novels written in Malayalam, was, its author claims, an attempt to fulfil his wife’s ‘oft-expressed desire to read in her own language a novel written after the English fashion’ and to see if he could create a taste for that kind of writing ‘among my Malayalam readers not conversant in English.’ This novel documents the transformation of marital relations in the Malabar region and articulates some of the tensions and desires of the new middle classes in the region through what was initially an alien literary form. In another part of the world, George Lamming, in his famous essay ‘The Occasion for Speaking’, claimed that there were ‘for me, just three important events in British Caribbean history’—Columbus’s journey, ‘the abolition of slavery and the arrival of the East— India and China—in the Caribbean Sea’ and ‘the discovery of the novel by West Indians as a way of investigating and projecting the inner experiences of the West Indian community.’ Published in 1960, Lamming’s essay was one of the earlier attempts to understand how important literature can be in devaluing and controlling colonial subjects but also in challenging Colonialism.

This may be a good place to ask ourselves how exactly we would demarcate literary texts from other forms of representation. If we go back to a period when European colonial discourse is in its formative stages, we can see the fairly dramatic overlaps between literary texts, visual representations and other writings. Let me begin with a picture that has become, following a seminal essay by Peter Hulme, central to the discussion of the place of women and gender in colonial discourse—it is Vespucci discovering America, engraved in the late sixteenth century by Stradanus. In this picture, Vespucci holds a banner with the Southern cross in one hand and a mariner’s astrolabe in the other. He stands looking at America, who is a naked woman half rising from a hammock. Hulme analyses this picture to show how it encodes aspects of the colonial drama: America as a naked woman ‘lies there, very definitely discovered.’ The cannibals in the background signify the supposed savagery and violence of New World natives, which the colonisers used to ‘justify’ their taking over of American lands. Vespucci is a historical individual, America a whole continent, their ‘meeting’ enacts a colonial paradigm whereby the European subject achieves individuation precisely in opposition to colonised peoples who represent land (as in this picture), or nature, ideas (commerce, labour, or pain) or a group (Zulu warriors, or Hindu women).

The first of the great sixteenth-century atlases, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, drawn up by Abraham Ortelius in 1570 (published in English in 1606 as The Theatre of the Whole World) encodes the colonial encounter in similar ways. Its frontispiece depicts the figure of America and the accompanying lines tell us:

The one you see on the lower ground is called AMERICA, whom bold Vespucci recently voyaging across the sea seized by force, holding the nymph in the embrace of gentle love.

Unmindful of herself, unmindful of her pure chastity, she sits with her body all naked, except that a feather headdress binds her hair, a jewel adorns the forehead, and bells are around her shapely calves. She has in her right hand a wooden club, with which she sacrifices\ fattened and glutted men, prisoners taken in war.

She cuts them up into quivering pieces, and either roasts them over a slow fire or boils them in a steaming cauldron, or, if ever the rudeness of hunger is more pressing, she eats their flesh raw and freshly killed . . . a deed horrible to see, and horrible to tell . . .

At length . . . wearied with hunting men and wanting to lie down to sleep, she climbs into a bed woven in a wide mesh like a net which she ties at either end to a pair of stakes. In its weave, she lays herself down, head and body, to rest.

The lines seem virtually a commentary on the Stradanus picture and other visual representations showing America. The birth of a new cartography in the early seventeenth century was made possible and imperative by travels to the new lands. Maps claim to be objective and scientific, but in fact they select what they record and present it in specific ways, which are historically tied in with colonial enterprises. During the Renaissance, the new artwork and the new geography together promised the ‘new’ land to European men as if it were a woman; not to mention the women of the new land who were regarded as literally up for grabs.

Not surprisingly then, Sir Walter Ralegh who led the first English voyages to Guiana described the latter as a country that ‘hath her maidenhead yet’. America was ready to be deflowered by Europe. Attached to Ralegh’s narrative was a poem by George Chapman, ‘De Guiana’ in which Guiana is an enormous Amazonian female who defers to England, also personified as a woman:

Guiana, whose rich feet are mines of golde, Whose forehead knocks against the roofe of Starres, Stands on her tip-toes at fair England looking, Kissing her hand, bowing her mightie breast, And every signe of all submission making.

But if England is also female, and if the imperial project is carried out in the name of a female monarch (in this case Elizabeth I), colonial relations cannot be projected always or straightforwardly in terms of patriarchal or heterosexual domination. These tensions between the female monarch, the male colonists and colonised people were to be revisited and reworked during the heyday of British imperialism when Victoria was Empress. These different kinds of ‘texts’—poetry, travelogues, atlases—use different languages and codes to project overlapping images, create a common vocabulary and construct America as an attractive land ripe for colonisation.

The interrelatedness of literary with nonliterary texts, and the relation of both to colonial discourses and practices that we have glimpsed in these early colonial times can be unravelled in later periods too, often even more sharply. We have seen how a wide spectrum of representations encode the rape and plunder of colonised countries by figuring the latter as naked women and placing colonisers as masters/rapists. But the threat of native rebellion produces a very different kind of colonial stereotype which represents the colonised as a (usually dark-skinned) rapist who comes to ravish the white woman who in turn comes to symbolise European culture. One of the earliest such figures is Caliban in The Tempest, who, Prospero alleges, threatens to rape his daughter Miranda. This stereotype reverses the trope of Colonialism-as-rape and thus, it can be argued, deflects the violence of the colonial encounter from the coloniser to the colonised. Understood variously as either a native reaction to imperial rape, or as a pathology of the darker races, or even as a European effort to rationalise colonial guilt, the figure of the ‘black’ rapist is commonplace enough to be seen as a necessary/ permanent feature of the colonial landscape.

In the very different context of nineteenthcentury colonial India, Jenny Sharpe demonstrates that the dark-skinned rapist is not an essential feature at all but discursively produced within a set of historically specific conditions. Sharpe shows that though such a figure comes to be a commonplace during and after what the British called ‘The Mutiny’ of 1857 (a revolt which spread from the Sepoys of the army and involved local rulers as well as peasants, and which nationalist historiography was to call the First War of Indian Independence). This event inaugurated the transformation of an existing colonial stereotype, that of the ‘mild Hindoo’, into another, that of the savage rapist of British women. Before the revolt, there were no stories of rape. The imperialists had for long scripted Indians as mild and ripe for colonial education. Through a reading of various reports, memoirs and other Mutiny narratives written by men as well as women, Sharpe suggests that the rebellion shook the British and left them ‘without a script on which they could rely’. Sharpe demonstrates what she calls ‘the truth effects’ of stories about white women’s violation and mutilation. Even though there was no evidence of systematic violence of this sort, she suggests that the ‘fear-provoking stories have the same effect as an actual rape, which is to say, they violently reproduce gender roles in the demonstration that women’s bodies can be sexually appropriated.’ This idea of ‘truth-effects’ where discourses can produce the same effects as actual events is Foucaultian in origin and it is useful in expressing the material effects of ideology without conflating the two. Sharpe discusses how these rape stories allowed a shaken British administration not only to consolidate its authority but to project itself as part of a civilising mission. Thus ‘a crisis in British authority is managed through the circulation of the violated bodies of English women as a sign for the violation of Colonialism.’

A whole range of English novels about India play with this history: E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, in which an Indian man is wrongly accused of raping a British woman, evokes the same ‘racial memory that echoes across the Mutiny novels as a horrific nightmare.’ But the book was written much later in the 1920s during a period haunted by the massacre by the British of hundreds of defenseless Indians who had assembled for a nonviolent public meeting at Jallianwallah Bagh at Amritsar in March 1919, an event which challenged the usual British claim to a civilising presence. Similarly Paul Scott’s The Jewel in the Crown, most explicitly offers rape as a metaphor for imperialism by depicting how an Indian man accused of raping a British woman is in turn violated by the colonial machinery. This novel too was written during the height of the nationalist struggles, at which time there was no threat of inter-racial rape analogous to that which was evoked and circulated during the Mutiny. Thus, at a time when the crisis of colonial authority is at a fever pitch, both these books evoke an earlier discourse which had tried to establish the moral value of colonisation. According to Sharpe, this harking back in The Jewel in the Crown works to suggest that ‘imperialism is a violation only at the moment of an organized opposition to British rule.’ Thus, while ‘exposing the British abuse of power in India, the novel also consolidates a colonial discourse of rape.’ In this reading, specific texts are not always simply pro- or anti-colonial, but can be both at the same time.

Sharpe’s book is part of the growing body of work that not only warns us against abstracting literary from other writings, but conversely, reminds us that non-literary texts such as newspaper stories, government records and reports, memoirs, journals, historical tracts or political writings are also open to an analysis of their rhetorical strategies, their narrative devices. They are not necessarily ‘objective’ but represent their version of reality for specific readers. So it is not just that literary texts are useful for analysing colonial discourse, but that the tools we use for their analysis can also be used for understanding the other ‘texts’ of empire. Gayatri Spivak endorses Foucault’s suggestion that ‘to make visible the unseen can also mean a change of level, addressing oneself to a layer of material which hitherto had no pertinence for history and which had not been recognized as having any moral, aesthetic or historical value.’ In this sense, literary texts have become more widely recognised as materials that are essential for historical study.

Today, even those works where the imperial theme appears to be marginal are being reinterpreted in the context of European expansion. As Spivak pointed out in an early essay, ‘It should not be possible to read nineteenth-century British literature without remembering that imperialism, understood as England’s social mission, was a crucial part of the cultural representation of England to the English.’ Thus, no work of fiction written during that period, no matter how inward-looking, esoteric or apolitical it announces itself to be, can remain uninflected by colonial cadences. Although ‘the Victorian novel turned its face from . . . unpalatable colonial details’, such details cannot be excluded from our readings of these novels. In Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas Bertram’s estate which seems so sheltered in its English provincialism is propped up by Antiguan sugar plantations which were run by slave labour. Of course, the colonies are not marginal in all European literature; on the contrary, English fiction becomes fairly obsessed with colonial travel, an obsession which resulted in bestsellers such as G.A. Henty’s novels for young adults (With Clive in Africa, or With Wolfe in Canada), Rider Haggard’s adventure stories or Kipling’s fictions. But here let us examine, via recent discussions of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, how attention to the colonial dimension alters our understanding of European literature and culture.

Marxist critics such as Terry Eagleton read Jane’s passage from an impoverished orphan and governess to the wife of wealthy Mr Rochester in terms of social mobility and the ambiguous class position of the governess; feminist critics such as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar appropriated the novel as a landmark text about the birth of a female individualism and the rise of the female subject in English fiction. But this reading had already been disturbed in 1966 by Jean Rhys’s novel Wide Sargasso Sea, which amplified a figure that is hauntingly marginal to Jane Eyre—that of Bertha Mason, Mr Rochester’s ‘mad’ first wife who is burnt to death, clearing the way for Jane’s marriage to Mr Rochester. Rhys rewrote Bertha’s ‘madness’ as the misery and oppression of a white Creole woman married for her plantation wealth, then dislocated from her island home in the Caribbean and locked up in an English manor. Going back to Rhys, Gayatri Spivak criticised feminist critics for reading ‘Bertha Mason only in psychological terms, as Jane’s dark double’; she suggested instead that nineteenth-century feminist individualism was necessarily inflected by the drama of imperialism, and that it marginalised and dehumanised the native woman even as it strove to assert the white woman as speaking and acting subject.

This position was criticised by Benita Parry, who pointed out that Bertha Mason, tormented Caribbean woman as she is, is not the real ‘woman from the colonies’ in Rhys’s novel. Bertha, first called Antoinette, is the white mistress of Christophine, a black plantation slave who is exploited but not silenced or reduced to the margins as she articulates her critique of Rochester, and of race and class relations on the island. Of course Christophine is not present in an Jane Eyre, but we can see how the world she occupies is necessary to the construction of English domestic peace and prosperity. However, in a fine essay on Wide Sargasso Sea, Peter Hulme suggests that while such a move is enormously useful in re-reading the European canon, we need to pay simultaneous attention to the historical and political nuances of texts produced in the erstwhile colonies. Thus Jean Rhys’s novel cannot be read simply alongside, and in opposition to Jane Eyre, and celebrated as ‘postcolonial’ in opposition to ‘colonial’. For Wide Sargasso Sea was ‘written by, in West Indian terms, a member of the white colonial elite, yet somebody who always defined herself in opposition to the norms of metropolitan “Englishness”; a novel which deals with issues of race and slavery, yet is fundamentally sympathetic to the planter class ruined by Emancipation.’ Hulme makes the important point that returning this novel to its local context complicates the term ‘postcolonial’ which is in some danger of being homogenised and flattened if simply pitted against the ‘colonial’. Instead, he suggests, ‘postcolonial theory, if it is to develop, must produce “native” terminology’, by which he means terms of reference that are local, rooted in specific histories. In this particular case, it would mean returning Rhys’s novel not just to a generalised ‘West Indian’ context but teasing out its Dominican and Jamaican strands as well. In this series of critical exchanges, we can see that a focus on Colonialism productively re-opens Marxist and feminist readings of canonical English fiction to a new debate, but also demands that we widen our understanding of the terms colonial and postcolonial.

This brings us to yet another aspect of the relation between literature and Colonialism which has to do not with what texts mean but what they are made to mean by dominant critical views, which are then enshrined within educational systems. We can easily grasp this from a play such as Shakespeare’s Othello, a standard text in schools and colleges in many parts of the world. For years critics refused to acknowledge that Othello is meant to be black—they argued endlessly that he was actually some shade of brown, not really ‘Negroid’, or was ‘white’ inside. The play could then be read as making a statement about masculine jealousy as a ‘universal’ attribute, provoked by the real or potential transgression of women. If Othello’s blackness was acknowledged, it was to suggest that his ‘race’ explained his jealousy, his emotional outbursts and his irrationality. These readings may be contradictory, but they can and were reconciled within racist readings of the play which needed to argue that Shakespeare’s hero was white, and simultaneously read blackness in terms of certain stereotypes. But if we seriously consider the race relations in the play, the theme of sexual jealousy cannot be seen as a universal statement about human relations in general, but is a crucial aspect of the racist context in which Othello and Desdemona live and love. Iago’s machinations then are not ‘motiveless malignity’ (Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s phrase endorsed by generations of literary critics) but born out of racial hatred and insecurity. Of course, we can read Shakespeare’s play either as a passionate defence of, or as a warning against, inter- racial love, but the crucial point is that on the stage, in critical evaluations and within classrooms all over the world, its racial theme was read to bolster racist ideologies existing in different contexts— in Britain, in South Africa and in India among other places. In all these places, Shakespeare’s play worked to reinforce the cultural authority of not just Shakespeare, but ‘Englishness’.

Even those literary texts that are, arguably, distant from or even critical of colonial ideologies can be made to serve colonial interests through educational systems that devalue native literatures, and by Euro-centric critical practices which insist on certain Western texts being the markers of superior culture and value. The rise of literary studies as a ‘discipline’ of study in British universities was in fact linked to the perceived needs of colonial ad- ministrators: English literature was instituted as a formal discipline in London and Oxford only after the Indian Civil Service examination began to include a 1000 mark paper in it, on the assumption that knowledge of English literature was necessary for those who would be administering British interests. Soon after, it was also deemed important that the natives themselves be instructed in Western literatures. Thomas Babington Macaulay, the architect of English education in India put the case succinctly in his famous ‘Minute on Indian Education’ written in 1835: English education, he suggested, would train natives who were ‘Indian in blood and colour’ to become ‘English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect’. These people would constitute a class who would in fact protect British interests and help them rule a vast and potentially unruly land.

Literary studies were to play a key role in attempting to impart Western values to the natives, constructing European culture as superior and as a measure of human values, and thereby in maintaining colonial rule. Gauri Viswanathan’s book, Masks of Conquest, argues this by examining British parliamentary papers and debates on English education in India. The book (like its title) suggests that English literary studies became a mask for economic and material exploitation, and were an effective form of political control. Not only was the colonial classroom one of the testing grounds for developing attitudes and strategies which became a fundamental part of the discipline itself, but

certain humanistic functions traditionally associated with literature—for example, the shaping of character or the development of the aesthetic sense or the disciplines of ethical thinking—were considered essential to the processes of sociopolitical control by the guardians of the same tradition.

Far from being antithetical to the political sphere, then, literature and culture are central to it. Like Said, Viswanathan has been criticised on the grounds that she does not take into account the role of Indians in either resisting or facilitating such literary studies. In fact, many Indians themselves demanded English education, including reformers and nationalists who were opposed to British rule in India. The making of British colonial policy thus played upon and was moulded by indigenous politics, and was not simply exported from England.

One of the ideologies underpinning literary education was the assumption that there was an insurmountable cultural gap between those who had ‘natural’ access to literary culture, and these others who needed to be taught it. Far from bridging this gap, literary education would reinforce inferiority; in the words of one H.G. Robinson

As a clown will instinctively tread lightly and feel ashamed of his hob-nailed shoes in a lady’s boudoir, so a vulgar mind may, by converse with minds of high culture, be brought to see and deplore the contrast between itself and them.

Such cultural control necessarily meant a suppression of the creativity and intellectual traditions of those who were to be schooled in English literature. Macaulay’s remark that a single shelf of European literature was worth all the books of India and Arabia is notorious but not unique. It is true of course that Orientalists defended some indigenous works, such as the ancient cultural artefacts and literary texts of India, but they too did so at the explicit expense of contemporary works of art—thus indigenous intellectual production was either completely disparaged (as in Africa) or seen as an attribute of a hoary past (as in India). Whether or not they were granted a cultural heritage of their own, colonised societies were seen as unworthy of developing on independent lines.

What was this culture that was constructed as the authoritative measure of human values? As the Scottish writer James Kelman puts it:

when we talk about the hegemony of English culture we aren’t referring to the culture you find down the Old Kent Road in London, we aren’t talking about the literary or oral traditions of Yorkshire or Somerset: we are speaking about the dominant culture within England; the culture that dominates all other English-language based cultures, the one that obtains within the tiny elite community that has total control of the social, economic and political power-bases of Great Britain . . . There is simply no question that by the criteria of the ruling elite of Great Britain socalled Scottish culture, for example, is inferior, just as ipso facto the Scottish people are also inferior. The logic of this argument cannot work in any other way. And the people who hold the highest positions in Scotland do so on that assumption. Who cares what their background is, whether they were born and bred in Scotland or not, that’s irrelevant, they still assume its inferiority. If they are native Scottish then they’ve assimilated the criteria of English ruling authority . . .

Kelman is here making the important point that neither the colonisers nor the colonised are homogeneous categories. The process of devaluation was not confined to colonies far away but also drew upon and attempted to calcify divisions of gender, class and ethnicity at or nearer home: thus, for example, as Robert Crawford has shown, the marginalisation of the Scottish language and literatures was an important feature of the ‘invention of English literature’. And although racial and cultural boundaries were drawn with different degrees of rigidity in various parts of the world, and in Africa it may not have been so easy to forget the ‘background’ or race even of those natives who were coopted by their colonial masters, still we do need to acknowledge that colonial domination implicated sections of the local population.

Various accounts of the colonial ideologies of English literary studies extend Althusser’s point that educational systems are important means for the dissemination of dominant ideologies. But did such a process of control work? Countless colonial intellectuals certainly parroted the lines of their masters; here is an extract from a prize winning essay written in 1841 by an Indian student at Hindu College, Calcutta titled ‘The Influence of Sound General Knowledge on Hinduism’:

With the Hindus everything and all things are incorporated in their religion. Their sciences, their arts are all revealed from heaven. If, therefore, their science is overthrown, their religion is also overthrown with it . . . The citadel of Hinduism is the religion of the country. Attack, capture that citadel, the system of Hinduism lies a conquered territory. And it is the science and religion of Christendom which have now encompassed round about that citadel. Several of its walls are beaten down, but still it is not surrendered: but we hope ere long the faith and science of Christendom shall fully be established in India . . . But, alas, alas our countrymen are still asleep—still sleeping the sleep of death. Rise up, ye sons of India, arise, see the glory of the Sun of Righteousness! . . . And we who have drunk in that beauty, we who have seen that life—shall we not awake our poor countrymen?

I have quoted at some length from this essay because it closely echoes Macaulay’s opinion that in India, literature, science and religion were intermixed (while each was distinct in the West) and also because the author explicitly takes on the role of Macaulay’s English educated Indian who acts as a surrogate Englishman and awakens the native masses.

But is mimicry an act of straightforward homage? In a series of essays, Homi Bhabha suggests that it is possible to think of it as a way of eluding control. He draws upon recent theories of language, enunciation and subjectivity which point out that communication is a process that is never perfectly achieved and that there is always a slippage, a gap, between what is said and what is heard. As we have been discussing, in the colonial context ‘the English book’ (the Western text, whether religious like the Bible, or literary like Shakespeare) is made to symbolise English authority itself. But this process whereby a text or a book stands in for an entire culture is a complex, and ultimately fraught exercise. The process of replication is never complete or perfect, and what it produces is not simply a perfect image of the original but something changed because of the context in which it is being reproduced. Bhabha suggests that colonial authority is rendered ‘hybrid’ and ‘ambivalent’ by this process of replication, thus opening up spaces for the colonised to subvert the master-discourse. This is a complex argument, and one that we will return to when we discuss colonial identities and anti-colonial rebellion. For now, let us look at mimicry and the study of literature in the colonies.

The process by which Christianity is made available to heathens, or indeed Shakespeare made available to the uncultured, is designed to assert the authority of these books, and through these books, the authority of European (or English) culture and to make the latter feel like clowns in the boudoir. Thus the intention is to assert an unbridgeable gap or difference between colonisers and colonised peoples. But the effort to convert the natives also assumes that the latter can be transformed by the religious or cultural truths enshrined in the colonial texts. Here the assumption is that the gap between cultures and people can be bridged. Thus there is a fundamental contradiction at the heart of the attempt to educate, ‘civilise’ or co-opt the colonial ‘other’. We can certainly see how such a contradiction is seized upon and used by colonised peoples. Lala Hardayal, a founder of the anti-colonial Ghadder Association, used Shylock’s speech in The Merchant of Venice, which begins ‘I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes?’ to argue that Shakespeare stood for human equality and that we should remember Shylock if we are ‘ever tempted to scorn or wrong a brother man of another race or creed’. Now, at one level, such an invocation of Shakespeare might be seen to prop up the authority of the Bard. But at another level, it certainly challenges rather than accepts colonialist views of racial difference. Thus Hardayal mimics the English uses of Shakespeare in order to contest the legitimacy of English rule in India.

We can also trace a wider pattern here. Hindu College, to take the very institution which produced the essay quoted above, was also the hotbed of Indian nationalism, and many of the early nationalists were English educated, and even used English literature to argue for independence. One form of this argument had been put forward by imperial historians who claimed that English literature (especially Shakespeare) and English education in general, had fostered ideas of liberty and freedom in native populations. It took Western Enlightenment notions of democracy and fraternity to make Indians or Africans demand equality for themselves! This dynamic is perhaps best symbolised by Shakespeare’s Caliban, who tells Prospero and Miranda:

You gave me language, and my profit on’t Is, I know how to curse. The red-plague rid you For learning me your language!

Caliban can curse because he has been given language by his captors. But one problem with such a line of reasoning is that subversion, or rebellion, is seen to be produced entirely by the malfunctioning of colonial authority itself. In Bhabha’s view, too, it is the failure of colonial authority to reproduce itself that allows for anti-colonial subversion. As a result, he does not consider the indigenous sources of anti-colonial intellectual and political activity.

This question, whether the dominant language, literature, culture and philosophic ideas can be turned around and used for subversive purposes, has been central to postcolonial, feminist, and other oppositional discourses. Within literary studies, one of the best known exchanges on the subject is the one between Ngu˜gý˜ wa Thiong’o and Chinua Achebe. Achebe suggests that given the multilingual nature of most African states as well as the colonially generated presence of the English language there, ‘the national literature of Nigeria and of many other countries of Africa is, or will be, written in English’. Achebe invokes the creative hybridity of African writers who moulded English to their experience rather than the other way round, and concludes that

for me there is no other choice. I have been given this language and I intend to use it . . . I feel that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit its new African surroundings.

A similar position has been taken by writers and critics of African origin or ancestry who live within metropolitan cultures such as James Baldwin or David Dabydeen. In reply to Achebe, and explaining his own decision to write in Gikuyu rather than English, Ngu˜gý˜ wa Thiong’o invokes the multiple connections between language and culture, and argues that Colonialism made inroads into the latter through control of the former. For him, the ‘literature by Africans in European languages was specifically that of the nationalistic bourgeoisie in its creators, its thematic concerns and its consumption’. This literature was part of the ‘great anti-colonial and anti-imperialist upheaval’ all over the globe, but became increasingly cynical and disillusioned with those who came to power in oncecolonised countries, and then bedevilled by its own contradictions because it wanted to address ‘the people’ who were not schooled in European languages. Ngu˜gý˜ casts a division between writers who were part of these people and wrote in indigenous languages, and those who clung to foreign languages, thus suggesting an organic overlap between political and cultural identities and the medium of literary expression.

How can we unravel these issues? Powerful anti-colonial writings have adopted both these perspectives. Further, choice of language does not always neatly represent ideological or political positions. Solomon T. Plaatje, founder member of the ANC wrote a novel in English called Mhudi (1930) which he said would be ‘just like the style of Rider Haggard when he writes about the Zulus’. Plaatje’s raises his voice against colonial dispossession of Africans in vocabularies inspired by Shakespeare, African oral forms, and the Bible. Similarly George Lamming’s writing of a novel seizes a colonial form of writing and uses it to challenge the coloniser’s claim to culture. On the other hand, writers who express themselves in indigenous tongues are not necessarily anticolonial or revolutionary, and they may be ‘contaminated’ by Western forms and ideas in any case, as is the case with the writer of the Malayalam novel Indulekha, discussed earlier. Nevertheless, turning away from colonial culture is often a necessary precondition for paying serious attention to the literatures and cultures devalued under Colonialism.

Literary studies also evoke a range of strategies. Historically, Shakespeare was used in South Africa to contest as well as foster racism. The contestations took place both from within and outside the education system, with African political leaders and intellectuals often using Shakespeare either to express their own psychological and political conflicts, or to challenge divisive ideologies. But how effective is such a strategy—do we need to use Joseph Conrad, whom Achebe called a ‘bloody racist’ to challenge Colonialism? To the extent that Shakespeare and Conrad are still taught and still read in the postcolonial world, why not? Thus, Martin Orkin argues that Shakespeare can be progressively used within the South African context. But at the same time, it is also necessary to challenge the Euro-centric canons that are still taught in many parts of the once-colonised world (and schools and universities within Europe and the United States). So for David Johnson, the effort to appropriate Shakespeare will only retard the move towards a fresh, more meaningful curriculum. Of course, simply reshuffling texts does not entail a shift of political or theoretical perspective, and decolonisation will demand more than teaching African or Asian or Latin American texts. These texts are also written across a huge political spectrum and can be taught from a variety of perspectives. Still, it is significant that many recent books on ‘postcolonial literature’ only consider literatures written in English, or widely available in translation, or those that have made the best-seller lists in Europe and the United States. We certainly need to widen our perspective on postcoloniality. For Edward Said, it is as crucial to read outside Western culture, to become comparative in a new sense: ‘to read Austen without also reading Fanon and Cabral . . . is to disaffiliate modern culture from its engagements and attachments’. For many third world intellectuals and artists, however, such an exercise is not enough. Non-Western literatures need to be recovered, celebrated, re-circulated, reinterpreted not just in order to revise our view of European culture but as part of the process of decolonisation.

The study of Colonialism in relation to literature and of literature in relation to Colonialism has thus opened up important new ways of looking at both. Even more important perhaps is the way in which recent literary and critical theory has influenced social analysis. Developments in literary and cultural criticism have not only demanded that literary texts be read in fuller, more contextualised ways, but conversely, have also suggested that social and historical processes are textual because they can only be recuperated through their representation, and these representations involve ideological and rhetorical strategies as much as do fictional texts. The analogy of text and textile may be useful here: critical analysis teases out the warp and woof of any text, literary or historical, in order to see how it was put together in the first place. Colonialism, according to these ways of reading, should be analysed as if it were a text, composed of representational as well as material practices and available to us via a range of discourses such as scientific, economic, literary and historical writings, official papers, art and music, cultural traditions, popular narratives, and even rumours.

Source: Ania Loomba, “Situating Colonial and Postcolonial Studies: Colonialism and Literature,” in Colonialism/Postcolonialism, Routledge, 1998, pp. 69–93.


Critical Overview